Ecology: What on Earth Are We Doing?


Readers of this blog have been on a journey with me through the literature about future prospects for our grandchildren.  We began with a review of how industrial society was built by the intensive use of energy, mainly from fossil fuels. Then we saw how economic and political leaders designed industrial economies to depend on pricing energy consumption as low as possible, neglecting to account for external costs such as impact on the environment and the consumption of non-renewable natural capital.  In recent decades the new science of ecology  has begun to explain the consequences of continuing to do what we have been doing—essentially creating a non-sustainable way of life on a planet with finite resources where a minority of  people live well while billions of others live at marginal levels or in abject poverty.  For the less economically privileged to reach the levels of the more fortunate is utterly impossible without exhausting the resource limits of the planet.  The pressures on the Earth due to population growth, energy-intensive industrialism, and a flawed economic model based on continuous growth are now such that the physical laws of nature will not permit a continuation of business as usual for many more years into the future.  If changes are not made by design, they will be enforced by shock during the lifetimes of many millions now living.  That is the story of this blog so far.

 The story will continue into more hopeful territory when we begin to consider the enormous potential humanity has to turn things around.  However, before we can approach that potential realistically, we must first appreciate the severity of the greatest threat now facing human civilization.  This is the issue that, above all others, will define what conditions will prevail on Earth by the end of this century.  Though it has been a factor on Earth for millions of years, as an issue of human survival it has come upon us quite recently—no more than two or three decades ago.  In fact, so recent and so sudden has been its onslaught, that its reality is still by no means fully appreciated by most people on the planet, and is flat out ignored and denied by many who are contributing most to its development.  It is an issue above all others that will determine how our grandchildren and those who follow them will live.  It is the issue of human-induced global warming leading to disruption of climatic conditions that have prevailed through the several millennia during which human civilization developed.

Understanding the Science

What makes the issue of climate change difficult for ordinary citizens without a strong scientific background to understand, is the complexity of the science underlying it.  No one appreciates this more than the man who has arguably done the most to bring the significance of this issue to the forefront of public debate.  This is Dr. James Hansen.

 In 2009 when Hansen was adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University and Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, he published a climate-science book for the public.  He called it Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.  The title could not be more clear; Hansen’s intent in writing the book could not be more explicit: Governments are in the hands of “special interests” who want things to continue into the future in ways that will be to their advantage. But citizens also have special interests–their loved ones.  “Citizens with a special interest—in their loved ones—need to become familiar with the science, exercise their democratic rights, and pay attention to politicians’ decisions.”

Hansen confirms that he became more concerned about the issue of global warming and climate change with the passing years as he, himself, came to understand the science better.  In particular, he is concerned about what he calls “climate forcings”—something going on that is likely to alter global temperature.  One such forcing would be a human-made change of atmospheric composition.

In 2001 Hansen thought that the climate impacts might be tolerable if the atmospheric carbon dioxide amount was kept at a level not exceeding 450 parts per million (ppm).  In 2009, when his book was published,  the level was 387 ppm, up from 280 ppm at the start of the industrial revolution in the 18th century. But by 2009 Hansen had changed his mind.  He had come to realize that 387 ppm was already in the “dangerous range.”  In May of 2013 the level just passed 400 ppm and is continuing to rise at the rate of about 2 ppm per year.  Hansen contends that it is crucial that we need to recognize the need to get the level back down to 350 ppm “in order to avoid disaster for coming generations.”  But we are still going rapidly in the wrong direction.

One other thing that happened for Hansen between 2001 and 2009 that influenced his view is that his first grandchild was born.  He realized that he could no longer just be an “expert witness” to what was going on.  “I did not want my grandchildren, some day in the future, to look back and say, ‘Opa understood what was happening, but he did not make it clear.”  Since then he has done more than try to make it clear.  In 2011 he was one of the first people to be arrested for protesting outside the White House against the Keystone Pipeline that would bring Canadian bitumen to be refined in the United States. 

Explaining the Science

In his book Hansen recounts how he had tried to explain the science behind climate change to then Vice-President Dick Chaney’s Climate Task Force in 2001.  He focused on the forcing agents underlying climate change, and distinguished between “natural forcings” and “man-made forcings.”  Hansen points out that there are many natural forcings which have affected the climate on Earth in the past, but the gist of what he is saying is that man-made forcings during the past few decades have been overwhelming the natural forcings and are beginning to tip the scales toward a hotter world.  Forcings that would cause climate cooling, such as volcanic eruptions that spew particles into the air that can cause solar dimming are no match for the concentration of greenhouse gases combined with feedbacks, like less solar reflection from melting ice, that are forcing a rise in global temperature.

Some of the science Hansen discusses takes an effort for the lay reader to follow.  It includes the effect, for example, of small changes to Earth’s tilt on its axis and to its orbit around the sun.  Again, the gist of what Hansen is saying is that a variety of natural focings should have been moving Earth towards another ice age, but instead the ice is melting rapidly.  Hansen’s conclusion is that “man-made forcings are now in total dominance over natural forcings. . . Humans by rapidly burning fossil fuels have caused global warming that overrides the natural tendency toward cooling. . . Global temperatures will continue to rise for decades and millennia unless we reduce human-made climate forcings.”  In addition, “sea-level rise is beginning to accelerate.  Sea level is now rising more than three centimetres per decade—double the rate that occurred in the twentieth century.”

Hansen says that the Bush-Chaney Administration did not want to hear this kind of evidence and took the position of distrusting the scientific community.  Though the President had initially asked the National Academy of Sciences to advise him about global warming in 2001, when he and other members of his administration heard what the scientists had to say, he “did not ask the Academy for advice about global warming again during the remainder of his eight years in power.”

Dangerous Reticence: A Slippery Slope

In a chapter in his book entitled “Dangerous Reticence: A Slippery Slope” Hansen deals head on with probably the most difficult aspect of communicating concern about climate change: Nothing much seems to be happening right now, but the changes that will almost certainly occur in our grandchildren’s lifetimes are enormous.  Moreover, scientists are talking about only a few degrees of temperature change.  How can that amount to a large change in climate?  “How can warming of several degrees destroy civilization?”  It is hard to explain such things to the public.

But the reason to be concerned, says Hansen, is that two phenomena—inertia and feedbacks—can result in large scale change.  Hansen says that when he realized this, that is when he concluded: “We really do have a planet in peril.”

The main sources of natural inertia with respect to climate change are the oceans and the ice-sheets.    Scientists at first thought that these sources of inertia would mean that change in climate would be slow, but suddenly “amplifying feedbacks that were expected to occur only slowly have come into play in the past few years.”  Examples are: significant reduction in ice-sheets and release of greenhouse gases from permafrost.  Inertia had lulled scientists to sleep.  “Now we have a situation with big impacts on the horizon.”  What to do?  Hansen says that the strategy must be to stabilize Earth’s climate by reducing the planet’s energy imbalance to near zero, which would at least stabilize the climate at its present state (not the more favourable conditions of pre-industrialization).  But that would be much better than letting the disaster unfold. “It borders on insanity to suggest that humans should work to ‘adapt’ to climate change, as opposed to taking actions needed to stabilize climate,” says Hansen.

Hansen sums up our predicament as follows: “Climate inertia and climate amplifying feedbacks, as humans rapidly increase atmospheric greenhouse gases, spell danger for future generations—big danger.  Yet the public is largely unaware of an impending crisis.  The obliviousness of the public is not surprising—global warming, as yet, is slight compared to day-to-day weather fluctuations.   “How in the world,” Hansen asks, “can a situation like this be communicated credibly?”

A Fork in the Road

Humanity does not have any control over the inertia of the oceans or the ice-sheets—how much and how quickly the one will warm and the other will melt.  However, what we do theoretically control, is how much carbon we pump into the air. Reducing this, says Hansen, is one clear strategy for slowing climate change—even though we know that present levels in the atmosphere will stay there for centuries.  We must do whatever we can to not make it worse.

Hansen sums it up concisely: “It follows that the world, humanity, has reached a fork in the road, we are faced with a choice of potential paths into the future.  One path has global fossil fuels declining at a pace, dictated by what science is telling us, that defuses amplifying feedbacks and stabilizes climate.  The other path is more or less business as usual, in which case amplifying feedbacks are expected to come into play and climate change will begin to spin out of control”  (I have added the emphasis in the hope that readers will pause to think about what it would mean for our grandchildren if climate change was “to spin out of control.”)

Target Carbon Dioxide: Where Should Humanity Aim?

In trying to arrive at a conclusion about how to act to try to stabilize climate, Hansen says there are two numbers in the carbon cycle we must pay attention to: 1) the rate at which carbon dioxide is being pumped into the air by fossil fuel burning; 2) the annual growth of carbon dioxide in the air.

Both of these numbers relate to a third number: the actual concentration of carbon dioxide in the air.  This gives rise to the question: What is a safe level? 

As mentioned earlier, Hansen at one time thought that 450 ppm would be safe.  Where did that number come from?  He says it came from looking at Earth’s history.  Fifty million years ago when Earth was much hotter than it is today, Hansen and his teams of researchers have estimated maximum carbon dioxide levels to have been 1400 ppm, with an uncertainty of about 500 ppm.  Then Earth cooled over several million years such that an ice-sheet formed over Antarctica.  This was about 34 million years ago.  Hansen’s estimate of the amount of carbon dioxide in the air at that time was 450 ppm with an uncertainty of about 100 ppm.  This led him to conclude that 450 ppm would be the highest concentration that might be considered “safe” for civilization.  However, carbon dioxide is the dominant climate forcing and you can’t turn it on and off like a tap, “so it would obviously be extremely foolish and dangerous to allow carbon dioxide to approach 450 ppm.  At that level the temperature rise would be sufficient to cause the melting of frozen methane and the release of methane gas, which is about 25 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas that traps heat from the sun on the Earth and prevents if from radiating into space.

Hansen warns that following global cooling over tens of millions of years “the methane hydrate reservoir is fully charged,” with an estimated inventory of 5000 gigatons of carbon.  If this were to be released, it would trigger conditions similar to 55 million years ago when sea levels were 250 feet higher than they are today.  How long would it take?  We don’t even want to ask the question.  Surely we don’t want conditions like that for our descendants if there is something we can do now to avoid them.

This brings us to Hansen’s estimate of 350 ppm as being the target we should not go beyond.  Remember, we are already beyond this target and have just crossed the threshold of 400 ppm and still going up at 2 ppm per year.

Given that pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide in the air were 280 ppm, Hansen now believes a target of 350 ppm is a reasonable objective for us to aim for.  He also warns us that we should not focus too much on temperature as it is easy to confuse weather with climate when you do that.  Some years are warmer or cooler than others for a variety of reasons not related to carbon dioxide concentrations.  The point is to focus on the actual carbon dioxide levels and institute policies to bring the level back to 350 ppm.

An Honest Effective Path

Hansen opens this chapter of his book with a blunt, clear statement: “Coal emissions must be phased out as rapidly as possible or global climate disasters will be a dead certainty.”  He goes on to say: “Most of the fossil fuels must be left in the ground.  That is the explicit message that the science provides.”  (Emphasis added).  He says we could continue to burn coal if we could safely store the carbon emissions in the ground, but that makes coal use more expensive and does not eliminate other pollutants from coal.”  “Clean coal is an oxymoron.  The point is that for the sake of our children and grandchildren, we cannot allow our government [US government] to continue to connive with the coal industry in subterfuge that allows dirty-coal use to continue.”

With respect to limiting emissions, Hansen is no fan of the Kyoto accord: “It was doomed before it started because it does not attack the basic problem. . . Today we are faced with the need to achieve rapid reductions in global fossil-fuel emissions. . . Most governments say they recognize these imperatives.  And they say they will meet these objectives with a Kyoto-like approach.  Ladies and gentlemen, your governments are lying through their teeth. . . The problem is that our governments, under the heavy thumb of special interests, are not pursuing policies that would restrict our fossil fuel use. . . Quite the contrary, they are pursuing policies to get every last drop of fossil fuel, including coal, by whatever means necessary, regardless of environmental damage.”

Hansen proposes that today’s political leaders should write a letter to be left for future generations.  “The letter should explain that the leaders realized their failure to take appropriate actions would cause our descendants to inherit a planet with a warming ocean, disintegrating ice-sheets, rising sea level, increasing climate extremes, and vanishing species, but it would have been too much trouble to make changes to our energy systems and to oppose the business interests who insisted on burning every last bit of fossil fuels.  By composing this letter, the leaders will at least achieve an accurate view of their place in history.”

So, What to Do?

Hansen now considers what to do, given the need to phase out coal, and he immediately gets into controversial territory for those who would otherwise support him.  “The bottom line seems to be that it is not feasible in the foreseeable future to phase out coal unless nuclear power is included in the energy mix. . . Efficiency and renewables are not going to be sufficient for energy needs [particularly for countries like China and India] during the next several decades.”

He deals with the objections to the nuclear option as follows: “All experts agree that coal is responsible for far more than 1 percent of air pollution deaths, [and conservatively of 10 percent of such deaths]:  that’s a hundred thousand deaths per year every year.”  Yet there are no rallies against coal use.  “Death by coal is probably not as sexy as death by nuclear accident.”

With regard to the problem of nuclear waste, he agrees it is a serious issue, but there is a solution.  He discusses “fast” nuclear reactors that burn about 99 percent of the uranium mined compared with less than 1 percent extracted by light-water reactors.  He describes the sad story of how technological development of this alternative was derailed in the US.  Now, he says, that “at the very least we should build a fast-reactor nuclear power plant.”  If the US used these reactors, Hansen says, there is already enough nuclear waste stockpiled that would provide fuel for them for a thousand years.

Hansen reports that when he began to speak publicly about this, he was bombarded with messages from environmentalists and anti-nuclear people.  “That’s what began to make me a bit angry.  Do these people have the right to, in effect, make a decision that may determine the fate of my grandchildren? . .” The new evidence affecting the nuclear debate is climate change. Can this kind of strategy be effective in the timeframe required? Hansen says: “If you do not believe that such rapid development is feasible, you should read some of the stories about the Manhattan Project.” [to build the first atomic bomb under enormous time pressures to end World War II).

The Main Story

Whether or not—or to what extent—energy from nuclear technology plays an important role in meeting the energy needs of tomorrow, Hansen is clear about one thing: governments have to place a significant tax on carbon.  For Hansen, this is the “main story.”  A rising carbon price driven by a carbon tax will make it economically sensless to go after every last drop of oil and gas.  In Hansen’s opinion, even an improved Kyoto Protocol approach with more ambitious targets of higher emissions reductions, “does not have a prayer of achieving that result.”  Countries, even with the best of intentions, will miss their targets and resort to another device called “offsets” to make up the difference.

But Hansen is no fan of offsets, which he says “are like the indulgences that were sold by the Church in the Middle Ages” to assist souls on their path through purgatory into Heaven.  Offsets provide a form of penance, he says, for energy sinners without doing anything significant to reduce the amount of carbon being burned.  Nor does he support the “cap and trade” approach now being pushed as a policy option in Washington and elsewhere. “It’s the kind of smoke and mirrors game that government bureaucrats love to play—but it won’t get the job done.”

For Hansen the backbone and framework for a solution to human-caused climate change is “ a rising fee (tax) on carbon-based fuels, uniform across the board.  No exceptions.  The money must be returned to the public in a way that is direct [as a dividend], so they realize and trust that (averaged over the public) the money is being returned in full.”  Hansen estimates that in the US a family with two or more children will receive in the range of $8000 to $9000 per year as a carbon dividend.

The carbon tax must rise at a rate that is economically sound.  The funds must be distributed back to the citizens (not to special interests)—otherwise the tax rate will never be high enough to lead to a cleaner energy future.  That is Hansen’s proposal: a simple straightforward approach of increasing the price of carbon and rewarding people for doing so.

But what happens if governments “continue to deceive us, setting goals and targets for emission reductions?”  In that case, sys Hansen “we had better start thinking about the Venus syndrome.”  By that he means a runaway greenhouse effect leading to ever increasing temperatures that finally become too high for life to survive (as on Venus).  Could it happen on Earth?  Hansen says, “If we burn all reserves of oil, gas and coal, there is a substantial chance we will initiate the runaway greenhouse.  If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a clear certainty”  One is reminded here of the Disney cartoon of the “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” when the young boy cast a spell to help him bring buckets of water from the well, but when everything began to flood with too much water, he did not know how to turn the spell off.  For us humans, there is no master Sorcerer to come to our aid and cast a spell to save us.  We have to do it on our own.

Last Words

Hansen’s last words and thoughts are for his grandchildren and young people generally.  Our politicians are hanging back from protecting our grandchildren because they (the governments) are under the sway of special interests and other ideologies.

“Therefore it is up to you,” Hansen says to all of us.  “You will need to be a protector of your children and grandchildren on this matter. . . It may be necessary to take to the streets to draw attention to injustice. . . Civil resistance may be our last hope.  It is crucial for all of us, especially young people, to get involved. . . this will be the most urgent fight of our lives.  It is our last chance.” 











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4 Responses to Ecology: What on Earth Are We Doing?

  1. John Wong says:

    Ecology is like a new religion: Different groups with different worldviews follow different belief systems. On top of that, there are fractions within the groups who cannot agree on which alternative is the best way out. Therefore, both the problems and the solutions are not well defined enough for consensus. When will we have unity in religion? When will there be peace? When will we have agreement on climate change? Should we use the carrot or the stick? Culture change is a very complex and difficult ideal and will take gargantuan efforts by the world community at large.

    John Wong

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